Lilting tunes from Kumaon
The columnist on Kumaoni balladeers Himanshu Joshi and his maternal uncle, the late Mohan Upreti
Admirers of Indian Ocean, one of India’s leading rock bands, are likely to be familiar with Himanshu Joshi as the band’s vocalist. What many may not be familiar with is the rather special repertoire of songs from Kumaon in Uttarakhand that Himanshu has collected and carefully documented for several years. He inherited these songs and ballads from members of his family, including his mother Hema Joshi, his maternal grandmother, and his maternal uncle, the late Mohan Upreti, whose contribution to theatre music and the preservation of Kumaon’s folk music is lauded and remembered even today, more than a decade after his passing.
Himanshu has vivid memories of his grandfather’s home in Almora, where he recalls his uncle’s interactions with Kumaoni folk musicians, particularly the Hurkiyas from a community of singers, dancers and entertainers, known for playing the Kumaoni hand drum called hurka. The Upreti home was visited quite regularly by the Hurkiyas, who would sing and bless the home and its occupants in exchange for meals. The songs of the Hurkiyas also became part of Mohan Upreti’s collection and many of these have been inherited by Himanshu.
Gifted with a warm, gentle voice, Himanshu generously agreed to share a few of the compositions he has inherited from his family. Saanjh Pari is a song that he heard his mother and grandmother sing at home. It is a sandhya geet, a song sung traditionally by women at dusk as they light a prayer lamp, or when they draw ritual patterns called aepan on the floor with rice paste. The version he sings for readers of Music Matters, he says, could have been stylized somewhat by Upreti with flourishes typical of Hindustani classical music.
Poorabi Ko Dina is another composition that describes sandhya, or dusk, swaying gracefully across the Himalayan mountains. Himanshu explains that unlike other parts of the world, where darkness descends suddenly at dusk, the evening light sways gracefully across the mountains, as it does in Lord Ram’s Ayodhya, Lord Krishna’s Dwarka and Shiva’s abode at Mount Kailash. Kumaon’s great balladeer Mohan Singh Rithagaari is said to have sung this composition exquisitely.
Rugu Rugu Basant is the Hurkiya’s way of welcoming basant, or spring, while Boyo Saraseyun gives listeners a taste of Kumaoni wedding songs. Folk music from Uttarakhand remains relatively unknown and unheard in the mainstream, which has accepted the music of Punjab, Rajasthan and, at times, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with greater alacrity. But with a little help from talented and committed singers of Kumaoni origin like Himanshu, some day these lilting melodies too may find a wider audience.
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